WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden delivered his State of the Union speech Tuesday night at a perilous time for the U.S. and for his presidency, facing low approval ratings as his party braces for a tough midterm election this fall.
Biden sought to strike a tricky balance between touting his successes on Covid-19 and the economy while emphasizing the pain many Americans are still feeling because of rising costs and anxieties that Russia's war against Ukraine could spiral into a larger global conflict.
He also made a plea for Congress to pass his stalled domestic plans.
"The State of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong," Biden said. "We are stronger today than we were a year ago. And we'll be stronger a year from now than we are today. This is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time."
Here are key takeaways from his address.
Biden aimed for unity — and got it, with a few exceptions
Biden sought to emphasize unity, and he received it at certain moments, most notably with an overwhelming standing ovation when he said: "The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police."
The chamber erupted in applause when he declared: "We, the United States of America, stand with the Ukrainian people."
But there were boos from Republicans when Biden knocked the 2017 GOP tax cuts, which morphed into cheers from Democrats when he touted his $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus package.
Later, when Biden discussed immigration, Reps. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., sought to get a "Build the wall!" chant going. It fizzled when others didn't join.
Moments later, Boebert appeared to interrupt with a reference to the 13 U.S. service members who died in an attack at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August, sparking "oohs" of opposition from colleagues.
A Covid victory lap before a mostly maskless crowd
It was a remarkable sight designed to elicit the feel of a country that has returned to normalcy: a relatively packed House chamber, with virtually none of the attendees wearing masks. The Capitol has ditched its mask mandate, and those attending were required to get tested for Covid. And as Democrats shift their messaging about the virus, Biden claimed credit for economic growth over the past year as the U.S. recovered from the pandemic.
"Last year Covid-19 kept us apart. This year we are finally together again," he said, adding later, "We are moving forward safely, back to more normal routines."
"Our economy grew at a rate of 5.7 percent last year, the strongest growth in nearly 40 years," he said.
Blaming inflation on corporate greed
Biden warned that inflation is "robbing" families of the gains of higher wages and job growth and said his "top priority is getting prices under control."
Biden bashed "trickle-down economics" and, in what appears to be a new tack, leaned into blaming inflation on corporate greed and price-gouging.
"During the pandemic, these foreign-owned companies raised prices by as much as 1,000 percent and made record profits," he said. "Tonight, I'm announcing a crackdown on these companies overcharging American businesses and consumers."
He also called for boosting domestic manufacturing and passing the U.S.-China competition bill, saying it would make "record investments in emerging technologies and American manufacturing" and help fix supply chain problems.
Biden pushes anew for 'Build Back Better' priorities — without using the name
Biden touted many features of his Build Back Better Act, which has passed the House and stalled in the Senate because of opposition from Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. But he didn't use the name — he referred to it as "the plan" and pitched it as a way to cut prices for Americans.
Biden emphasized his plans to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and to raise taxes on corporations. He called for investments in clean energy, child care and universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.
And in an apparent appeal to Manchin, who has called for prioritizing debt reduction, Biden said his proposals would "not only lower costs and give families a fair shot; it will lower the deficit." He took aim at the Republican-led tax cuts enacted during the Trump administration, which Manchin has said he wants to roll back, saying it "ballooned the deficit with tax cuts for the very wealthy and corporations."
Manchin, notably, was sitting in the GOP section. His spokeswoman said he simply wanted to sit "with his colleague Senator Romney to remind the American people and the world that bipartisanship works and is alive and well in the U.S. Senate."
Democracy versus autocracy
Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine put a finer point on one of Biden's enduring themes: promoting democracy and defeating autocracy. He inveighed against Putin and touted the importance of the NATO alliance and U.S. diplomacy.
He proclaimed "an unwavering resolve that freedom will always triumph over tyranny" as members waved blue and yellow colors for Ukrainian flags. "When dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos."
He sought to strike a balance between imposing new punishments against Putin by announcing that the U.S. will close off its airspace to Russian flights while emphasizing that U.S. forces "are not engaged and will not engage" in a war with Russian forces.
Biden vowed "robust action to make sure the pain of our sanctions is targeted at Russia's economy" and to do what he can to "protect American businesses and consumers."